Creating Space: Ep. 2 - “Why an Italian in South Africa?” In Conversation with Federico De Nardis, CEO of GroupM Sub-Saharan Africa

Federico De Nardis’ dedication to driving racial and gender inclusivity within the GroupM Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) workforce is a key mission for the CEO. Leading a sub-division within the mammoth WPP network, one of the world's leading advertising organisations, De Nardis is creating a culture that generates future Black leaders within the advertising sector. From the launch of the GradX —- an annual programme that trained and upskilled over one hundred Black talents —- to addressing gender imbalances, during his five-and-a-half-year tenure, the Italian CEO has spearheaded diversity initiatives across GroupM’s offices in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, aiming to address broader diversity inequities and market and cultural nuances that differ from its European counterparts.

We discussed De Nardis’ early career moves and his trajectory from building his first web agency, Alchera, to his current leadership role at GroupM SSA. A senior European professional leading an agency in Africa? – Yep, we discussed that too. His interest in Africa’s growing creative and tech landscape is reflective of his time as a start-up founder, traversing the trials and tribulations of working in start-up ecosystems and adapting to changing markets.

From fostering Black talent development to cultural and technological trends disrupting Africa’s creative and advertising industries, in the second instalment of Creating Space, De Nardis discusses his career journey, experiences, challenges, and role as CEO of GroupM SSA.

Adaora Oramah: Could you discuss your career beginnings and entry into the marketing and creative industries, as well as your journey?

Federico de Nardis: During university, my focus was on history and literature. I contemplated continuing in academia but found the environment unappealing. My father's background in international marketing and management, along with my brother's work in advertising, prompted me to pursue an internship as a copywriter while still in university.

That was my first stint in advertising, and despite discovering copywriting wasn't my calling, I was captivated by the energy and vibe of agencies. After graduation, I took a job with an agency in Milan. This marked my official entry into the industry. The initial years provided insights into marketing, business, and the industry at large. A brief three-year tenure on the client side followed with the Fiat Group in Turin, although I found that the corporate culture was awful. I wanted to go back to the agency. I prefer the variety that you have on the agency side. By all means, in terms of people, culture, and clients.

Adaora Oramah: Tell me about your involvement with Alchera and its challenges and successes.

Federico de Nardis: Following my time at Fiat, I yearned for agency work again. In the nascent stages of the internet, my partners and I established a web agency, Alchera. The early years were tough as we navigated the internet landscape in Italy. The late '90s and early 2000s saw rapid growth, coinciding with the dot-com bubble.

The whole industry exploded. There were massive investments, and then suddenly, they just stopped. When the market collapsed after 2001, we had to retrench and restructure the business, which involved tough decisions about our workforce. So that's been the most challenging experience, to be honest.

Adaora Oramah: You currently serve as the GroupM CEO for sub-Saharan Africa. Can you elaborate on your role and how you attained it?

Federico de Nardis: After Alchera, I moved back into the industry via WPP. I led Maxus operations across EMEA, which later merged with MEC to form Wavemaker. Amid this transformation, I was offered my current role in sub-Saharan Africa, covering South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria.

So the sub-Saharan African role, interestingly enough, up to that moment, didn't exist. We had, as a group, let's say, a South African role, an East African role, and a joint venture in Nigeria. I had to build my current role, in a way, from scratch,  because the three markets had worked in a separate and siloed capacity.

The goal was to foster collaboration across these markets, each with its own distinct challenges. I embarked on building a cohesive team and culture, enabling cross-market pitches and business development.

Adaora Oramah: Understandably, some people might have felt uncomfortable with your role as an Italian CEO in South Africa. How did you address and mitigate those concerns?

Federico de Nardis: My goal when I moved to South Africa was to create a culture that could generate future leaders without having to resort to recruiting someone from abroad. I perfectly understand that the first question everybody had in their mind when they saw me arrive was – why an Italian in South Africa?

I think my approach has always been the same, which is to understand that you know much less about that market than any other colleague. I really like to learn, and there's a lot to learn about the history and culture of South Africa, and also of sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last five years that I've been here, I've learned immensely.

I also overcame concerns by creating very solid relationships with all my colleagues in South Africa. I think this also helps them understand how they could change and evolve in their thinking. When I arrived at GroupM South Africa, our EXCO was 100% male. I said, “Well, that's impossible; in an industry where you always have a majority of females versus males, how could it happen that you have a leadership team that is only made up of men?” So, we worked on that. It was one of my critical objectives. And now, after a few years, we have a very different EXCO, which is 60% female and 40% male.

Adaora Oramah: Regarding diversity and inclusivity, what initiatives has GroupM undertaken to foster an inclusive workspace?

Federico de Nardis: Diversity initiatives differ based on market nuances. In Italy, we aimed for gender balance in leadership. However, in African countries like South Africa, racial diversity presents a unique challenge.

When I arrived, I was looking at the senior leadership, and although we have had some very strong local Black talent, honestly, there were a few compared to the percentage in the market and the size of a business. So looking at the pyramid, it was always reflecting South Africa’s Black population at the base, but towards the top of the pyramid, it was more and more white-dominated.

So, we've addressed two things. We launched The GradX programme, which addresses this by providing equal opportunities. It trains Black graduates from South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya for leadership roles, aiming to counter historical white dominance.

We provide graduates with solid training and exposure and permanently employ them at the end of the 12-month program. We are aiming to build the talent and leadership of the future. But we know that that will take time; we are in our fourth year now. The program is delivering on its expectations. We are improving the program and creating more online e-learning and classroom experiences.

The other point is that we already have some very good mid-level Black talent. But how do we support them in the right way so that they can become senior leaders? In South Africa, the problem is that in the past, we always lost those talents to corporate clients because the pay was better, and it’s more socially relevant to say, “I'm working for well-renowned brands like Vodacom, Standard Bank or FNB”, for example. It’s really about giving Black mid-level talent the right training, experience, opportunity to grow, and appropriate financial compensation.

Adaora Oramah: How do you measure success for these initiatives within GroupM?

Federico de Nardis: Success in GradX hinges on program participants securing permanent roles post-training.

Clearly, GroupM can't hire everyone every year from the programme. At the moment, we are opening up to include our media partners and potential clients so that we are actually building talent within their organisation.

Retention rates provide another gauge of program efficacy. The goal is to retain local talents within the industry and dissuade them from migrating to other fields.

Adaora Oramah: Could you pinpoint current marketing and cultural trends in sub-Saharan Africa that excite or concern you?

Federico de Nardis: Creative protectionism. This is worrying me a bit, and I'm talking about things like Nigeria dictating that 75% of all creative content must be local. It’s potentially limiting cross-border collaboration. I understand where it's coming from, and it's definitely with good intentions, but I think that we all want Nigerian creatives to work not only in Nigeria but in Europe, the UK, the US, and the rest of Africa. Personally, I am never in favour of protectionism. Our world is so interconnected that protectionism is actually going in the opposite direction from where the world is going.

On a positive note, the growth of AI presents opportunities for the development of Africa's creative and media industries. It's also important that the capital flow to Africa supports these new developments. There have been quite a few investments from venture capital in Africa, but compared to other areas of the world, they are still small.

The reality is that there are fantastic small entrepreneurs and startups across Africa. It’s the youngest continent in the world. We will keep seeing new opportunities as long as they are supported by financial investments.

Adaora Oramah: Lastly, what advice do you have for junior and mid-level marketing professionals in Africa aiming for senior roles?

Federico de Nardis: Strengthen foundational skills first rather than pursuing a shallow, horizontal approach. Deep expertise and building solid basic skills in your chosen career are crucial.

I’ve seen this a number of times because young talents are very eager to grow; they tend to jump from one opportunity to the other, but in reality, you've missed building a solid base for your career, and then it's very difficult to go back.

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